How can I get better at reading aloud?
November 16, 2009 4:05 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to read aloud with more feeling?

When I read a poem or a script or a passage from a book aloud, it always sounds really flat and uninteresting. I feel like I have a few gimmicky ways of varying my tone and I just re-use them over and over again. By the time I get to the end of a sonnet, even I'm bored.

How can I get better? I know practice will be required but at the moment I don't even know what I should be trying to do. I'm not looking to make a stage debut or become a professional-level voice actor or anything — just to be able to say "hey, this poem/soliloquy/page is awesome, listen to this" and not send people to sleep when I proceed to read the awesome text aloud.
posted by No-sword to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
There's probably a better on-line source for this, but searching will get you a decent number of poets reading their poetry. Some good poets are not great speakers, but it's a good starting point. I have a postprandial poetry reading with my kid every night, and going to the source like that has been useful.
posted by kmennie at 4:12 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: Sounds like you may need to work on cadence. Vary the speed of your reading with the action. Work in slight pauses when suspense is unfolding or when something deep is being said. Carry your voice in a sweeping fashion when something is being said with conviction. You may want to listen to some audio book presenters who are well-regarded here and ignore the content but listen to the style, rhythm, and intonation.
posted by crapmatic at 4:15 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: Listen to some poets reading their work, and think about what they're doing*. Poems are difficult to read well, and poets have usually thought a lot about their own approach to this problem.

John Berryman is a fantastic interpreter of his own work.
Philip Larkin is good, too.
I just heard Eileen Myles read and wasn't bored for a second.
Ariana Reines, in this interview, gives a pretty breathtaking reading.
Or just go to PennSound and dig.

*: My own thoughts on reading poetry, distilled from listening to a lot of poets, is that the best readers are a little exalted/performative in tone (you can tell that they're reading to you) but that this doesn't eliminate normal speech patterns in their reading, or some translation of normal speech patterns. Try reading slower. Or faster. Try enunciating more. Or less. But don't leave out pregnant pauses, hesitation, or the changes in volume that would accompany a normal sentence - you're used to trying to keep the interest of other people all the time, every day, and that practice is useful. Write out something you said in a conversation earlier today. How did you say it? How would you read it? Could you come to a compromise between these two? Or even somehow multiply one by the other?

Also if you're telling someone "this is awesome, listen to this", allow for the fact that they may just want to go eat a burger or whatever and not listen to a poem/story/soliloque at that moment, and no matter how compelling it is, or you are, you will attract less interest than that burger.
posted by voronoi at 4:32 AM on November 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Oh that Ariana Reines reading starts at like 7:20 in that clip.
posted by voronoi at 4:37 AM on November 16, 2009

I'm not a politician but I often write for one.

A lot of it doesn't lie with you, the speaker. The secret to getting passion across in speaking is actually in the text. It's really hard to read pages of bureaucratic language—"greater community-driven involvement and targeted encouraged participation of marginalised groups in the consultative framework production process" etc.—and it's less hard than you think to sound like an authority if you choose your words. We write short sentences, if possible in words of less than two syllables. It's a simple trick, but then listen to the Americans' President when he's doing his thing.

I can't choose your poetry but I'm sure you can.

Just as an athlete runs faster downhill, you'll speak more passionately if the words you choose are short and hard to stumble over. I'm not religious, but my model for written speech is Biblical; if only for the reason that it was translated into English for reading aloud.

Try Exodus 6:6-12 in front of the mirror. Have fun.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:54 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > A lot of it doesn't lie with you, the speaker. The secret to getting passion across in speaking is actually in the text

This is not true. Of course powerful texts can inspire better reading, but the poster is not reading "pages of bureaucratic language," he's reading poems and other writing he loves. The problem does not lie with the text, it lies with the poster, which is why he's asking for help.

I would suggest trying to make the text your own; rather than reading words off a page and trying to add a few gimmicks, pretend that the text is coming from you and is something you're saying with all your heart, as if you were proposing marriage or describing something that had thrown your life off course. You might memorize a shorter text, so that you can practice saying it without the distraction of reading words on a page. And yes, watch poets reading, though some of them are terrible at it (TS Eliot is a real snooze). Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: The easiest three things to vary vocally are volume, pitch, and tempo. Each new line you start, change one of these factors. For practice, be random and just make the changes. As you get more comfortable, the changes will start to connect with what gets you excited about the poem.

low pitch
hig pitch

Some of these go naturally together (fast and loud). That's great, but don't forget fast and quiet is also an option.

A bit off topic, but it may keep your listeners more engaged if you get them to agree to pass the poem back and forth, or around, and each person reads a line or two at a time.

Good luck!
posted by rainbaby at 6:41 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: I'd only say to try to avoid the hack of "false" feeling. (I seem to hear it a lot on NPR when people are reading "essays". Or back in grade school where the teacher's pet types would make a science text sound syrupy.)

Either know the text really well so that the feeling is natural, or get *really* good at faking it so it doesn't sound fake anymore.

examples of professional voice over artists:

Listen to how they punch certain words, change cadence, even punch certain syllables. And modulate the timbre of their voices- like the Disney guy- his voice is not really that high pitched, but he adds in some higher register to make what he is saying sound more wholesome. They work pronunciation like a musical instrument.

If it's still the same reel, Amy Landecker was the voice of those ubiquitous Zoloft commercials with the sad tribble. Listen to how she makes her voice sound empathetic and non-threateningly encouraging.

So, decide what the tone of the piece you are reading is, and work toward that. The goal isn't to force the listener to feel the emotion of your voice, as much as it is to just assist the listener in feeling the emotion of the piece.

(Also, get a tuxedo with a zippered jacket. It seems to add flair.)
posted by gjc at 6:56 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

My wife is a poet, and we mock mercilessly the "poetry voice" -- the precious, ersatz-gravitas-laden cadence of (often) young and self-impressed hobby poets reading in public at their local coffee house. Nothing recommends it. Careful.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:23 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think Language Hat has it - make it your own. It's not gimmicks that will do it but to learn to read with the your own passionate voice. How? I don't know. I wonder about this myself. Mrs. Plinth doesn't read aloud well as she has mild dyslexia. I read aloud well, but I think that's because of a defining moment as a child: I always read out loud and it, apparently, drove my brother nuts to the point where he told me to stop. I said I didn't know how to read to myself. He said, just read out loud but don't move your mouth. Thirty six years later, I read the same way.
posted by plinth at 7:40 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: See what you can find in the way of training materials for lectors at worship services. Filter out what you don't need or want regarding religious or doctrinal stuff.

I'm considered an excellent reader and public speaker, too, and I think it was my very extensive and thorough lector training that did it. I'm not trying to throw a religious wrench into things, but that's the best source of reading training I can think of.
posted by jgirl at 7:55 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Consider looking for inspiration from musical performances. For music rhythm, tempo, pitch, repetitions and dynamics are much more obviously a part of a performance than they are with poetry. Composers have developed a library of tricks to grab the attention of an audience and to engage their feelings: themes, choruses, crescendos, key changes and so on. You could try selecting a piece of music to act as an introduction or as a background to your reading. You could try practising reciting lines with the help of a metronome, you could even try notating the poem with musical dynamics.
posted by rongorongo at 8:20 AM on November 16, 2009

I would consider taking an acting class. They're not just for folks trying to become actors. A good acting class will teach you how to connect with words on a page and find your own, authentic way of saying them.
posted by decathecting at 8:40 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, maybe try doing story time for kids at your public library or local bookstore for awhile?

You'll find to keep children engaged that you'll do all sorts of things with your voice that you wouldn't necessarily do under other circumstances.

And you'd get awesome karma points for doing a wonderful service!
posted by zizzle at 9:58 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of narrated books, e.g. from Listening to a talented reader is also a great way to learn to improve your own reading. You may want to take a look and see if there is anything you are interested in anyway that is well rated based on the quality of the narration.
posted by bearwife at 10:00 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: I was the theater major who helped my business school friends get through their performing arts requirements.

Here's an idea. Just like many good singers mimic their demo/cover, you can do the same thing with the spoken word. Get a recording that you like (book on tape?) and read along out loud until you can imitate it. The idea is to convey the message, not just repeat the words. After all, the words we say are a very small part of our communication (only 7%), with tone of voice and body language making up the majority. Consider sarcasm, right?, where the meaning is not the literal translation.

It is far easier to read aloud something familiar because you know where it is leading you (and hopefully your listener!) When reading aloud something unfamiliar, you sort of have to read ahead of yourself and anticipate the full thought. It's a lot like reading music and it takes practice. I applaud you for working on this, in my opinion it will pay off in all of your communication.
posted by kgn2507 at 10:37 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: It helps if you can read faster than you talk. Seriously. Knowing what is coming next makes it easier to get the stress on the correct syllables or words. The stilted cadence and flat tone you hear from people not good at reading for an audience often stems from simply reading it word by word instead of being able to put it together as a whole before (or during) speaking it aloud.

If you aren't good at reading ahead, give yourself a better chance at it by simply slowing down and/or pausing more often. Pauses in the right place can add as much emphasis as stressing specific words in the right place.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:28 AM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: You should consider getting a cheap microphone and recording yourself. Dealing with pitch and cadence sounds just like learning how to sing and it's tremendously beneficial to hear yourself.
posted by just.good.enough at 12:08 PM on November 16, 2009

practice. cold readings always sound bad. you need to be confident in your knowledge of the text you're reading more than anything. once you have that down, you can start to play and add some feeling.

and this may sound silly, but practicing while a little tipsy could be helpful. you may find things out about the text that will surprise you.
posted by spindle at 1:24 PM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: Seconding listening to audiobooks and reading the entire text through at least once before reading it aloud. I've read/narrated stuff at church and been complimented on it, but all I really do is read the passage ahead of time to see where the natural stops and starts and points of emphasis should be and make sure I can pronounce everything. (Well, plus it's usually scripture, which lends itself nicely to dramatic reading.)

Also, my voice is on the monotone/flat side, so I had to learn to use what feels like a Ridiculous Amount of Emphasis and Overenunciation when Reading Aloud. Imagine you're a kindergarten teacher, but less obnoxiously cheery. Offering to lead storytime was a great suggestion.
posted by Flannery Culp at 1:50 PM on November 16, 2009

Best answer: Look for the natural rhythm and flow that's already written into the piece and play with that. If it's something with a strong meter, don't get dragged down into a sing-song monotony. Instead, try to push and pull it by varying how strongly you emphasize the syllables and how long or little you pause between words and lines. Pay special attention to pausing at punctuation, but not so much at the end of each line - in fact seamlessly linking lines as you're speaking can help the flow tremendously when appropriate. Since you mentioned sonnets, here's a quick example- bold indicates emphasis:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds [pause]
Admit impediments, love is not love [pause]
Which alters when it alteration finds, [pause]
Or bends with the remover to remove.


Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments, [pause]
love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, [pause]
Or bends with the remover to remove.

See how the stresses and pauses in the first version become monotonous and obfuscate the meaning? In contrast, the stresses and pauses in the second version help to support and convey the meaning because it draws the listener's attention to the key phrases.

Think of it less as reading words and more as interpreting meaning and emotion. Listen to how you convey meaning and emotion in your own conversations. Does your voice speed up? Slow down? Is the cadence smoother or bouncier? Go up or down in pitch? For instance, when I'm speaking passionately about something, my voice is usually a little higher and my pace is faster. So if I'm reading a piece where I want to convey that same kind of passion, I try to channel my emotional energy and speak it as if I'm thinking and feeling those words for the first time.
posted by platinum at 2:37 PM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I've marked the advice containing very specific ideas as best, as that's where I think I have to start.

Emperor SnooKlooze, what kind of reading voice does your wife like? How does she approach the problem?
posted by No-sword at 10:06 PM on November 16, 2009

« Older Intergalactic Google-fu Fail...   |   looking for italian church art. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.